Saturday, 23 October 2010

A blog is not just for Christmas

Blogging for business is a serious business.

Once you start, you quickly establish a pattern in the minds of your customers which you break at your peril. If you set out to produce say a monthly blog, or indeed a customer newsletter, then your customers will come to expect the next one next month. Think of your blog/newsletter as a magazine. If it doesn't appear - even if the customer doesn't normally read them - then they may make an assumption that you are in some way unreliable, can't meet your commitments, or worse still can't be bothered. The fact that your business is booming, and so it is hard to find the time to write it, will be lost on your loyal readers.

So if you are minded to produce a blog for your business, what do you need to consider?

Firstly, what is your message? I don't mean the topic, that will of course vary from one blog to the next. I mean, how do you want your readership to react? Is it to be purely informational - readers will go to the blog just to find out which products are in stock this week, or if there is a special offer? Or is it meant to be informative (there is a difference), where readers might come to see, for example, if there is any impact on your industry from the latest government pronouncements? In the latter case, the message is more subtle - you are demonstrating to your customers that you understand the business and the environment it operates in, and it will lure readers back because it is relevant and entertaining, thereby continuing to expose them to your marketing.

Secondly, the periodicity. Blogs have an advantage over newsletters in that they can be shorter and perhaps more frequent - and to a limited degree more variable in timing - but avoid setting a pattern you cannot sustain.

Thirdly, plan ahead. You should always have half a dozen ideas for topics in a list, so that you know what will be coming up. This enables you to develop recurrent themes and orchestrate the marketing message better. You can bet that the lead topic for a large circulation magazine is planned a lot more than 6 issues out. Doesn't mean you can't switch topics if unexpected things happen - the impact of the protests in France might be one example.

And fourthly, make sure the logistics of publishing are clearly established: how you load your blog; a tight link with your website home page; promotion of each issue through Twitter or whichever other social media you use.

Finally, all you need to do is to write! If you find this difficult, either because you are not a natural writer or you find it hard to make the time, then that's where Emmens.Biz can help. We will invest some time talking to you to understand your company, your brand and your brand values, so that we can establish the style that's appropriate. For subsequent issues, we should need only to spend maybe 15 minutes on the phone to talk over topics and angles, and then produce a draft for you to review. We can offer an introductory price which enables you to see how well we meet your needs before you make any longer term commitments.

And hopefully we can show that although blogging for business is serious, it can also be fun!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The power of words

One of the things I have inherited from my father, apart from a large nose and a distressing ability to walk past friends and loved ones in the street without noticing them, is a love of words.

My father wrote English textbooks for schools, and waged a fierce campaign throughout my youth to try to mould me into a person who uses language sensitively. Eventually he got me to deny the split infinitive, to reject the unnecessary pronoun, and even to use 'different from' instead of 'different to'.

Thus we now share our amusement at ambiguous public use of English. I share my father's penchant for the sign in department stores that states 'Menswear'. We both always knew they did, particularly in moments of stress. He shares my delight in a sign outside some stables near my home which exhorts: 'Horse manure - please drive in'. We chuckle at American instructions like 'take out window' and 'pick up counter'.

Of course, when I joined the corporate world, I found a whole new language with just a passing resemblance to English: Jargon. I now talk of methodology without intending to refer to a study of methods. I will attempt to think out of the box without any consideration of containers. I cheerfully discuss blue sky business without any care for the prevailing meteorological conditions. These things cause my father to mutter under his breath, but he reluctantly accepts they have a place and are, frankly, inevitable. Nevertheless, in many ways, businesses fail to use jargon effectively, and instead of providing a shorthand for meaning, they confuse and obscure it. And that is just the start of the ways in which businesses frequently commit crimes against the language.

Now, I can accept that in the heat of the moment, speech is not necessarily an expression of purity of grammar and construction. The objective of the spoken word is communication, not the formality of syntax. Nevertheless, when it comes to the written word, the situation is different. I'm not talking about the casual, one-to-one scribbled note or email - that's just a written version of a phone call. I mean text created for wider consumption on behalf of one's business - text in brochures, presentations, blogs, newsletters, business reports and so on. Here, the writer has had the opportunity - indeed, the obligation - to clean up the stream of consciousness that comes in speech. I find so many instances of poor use of the language - even taking jargon into account - that it causes a sensitive soul like myself much distress.

But more to the point, it jars with an awful lot of people who are, perhaps, less likely than myself to hone in on whatever precise grammatical construct is broken, but know intuitively that it isn't expressed very well. I appreciate that some of us are to a degree dyslexic, but in important documents - particularly customer-facing ones - such people should ensure that their output is verified as free from error.

Some years ago, the chief executive of a well-known airline made the point that the cleanliness of an aircraft interior was important, because a passenger would extrapolate from insufficient care on interior maintenance to insufficient care on mechanical maintenance. The same is true of important or widely distributed written communication: if you can't present an topic in an organised way, and in a well-structured and well laid out document, then your customer (or stakeholder, or manager) will construe a similar lack of professionalism in your business.

I am conscious of this importance not just because of my heritage but also because I have seen it in countless business situations. I know that when receiving proposals from suppliers, it is possible to look beyond the language and style at the basic information content, but it is hard to do so, and there are inevitable inferences about the suitability of the supplier as a result. I have worked for executives who, on receiving a report that is not structured for quick assimilation by a busy director, will simply throw it back at you as not fit for purpose. And I have all too often read promotional material which simply does not focus the reader on the worth of its product.

Having produced countless documents of all of these types in my career so far, and learnt all too clearly what enhances as well as what gets in the way of the message, I want to help other business people to produce better quality written text. I am offering a service to prepare and improve all manner of written documents, from Powerpoint slides to technical manuals, under the headline "Is your business being heard?" The initial assessment and recommendation is free and without obligation. Playing even a small part in improving the written word of the nation's businesses is a passion and a pleasure.

And I know that my father will be delighted.

Monday, 15 March 2010

We should go to work on climate change

Like many others, I am concerned to the point of alarm by the scientists’ warnings about our planet, and worried about the lack of international accord and serious commitment to act. So I try to heed the advice to save energy at home. I turn off unwanted lights and look at where I can install low energy bulbs. I am uncomfortable when I fail to turn off the video recorder and TV, leaving them on standby. I have installed cavity wall insulation and the recommended level of loft insulation. I wear jumpers and keep the thermostat turned down.

However, the media focus on all of us domestic energy users does I believe distract attention from the rampant energy waste in the business and public sectors (and, yes, the offices of the press themselves).

At work, I visit many different company offices, and they almost all endowed with excellent natural lighting, to the extent that on sunny days, the blinds are pulled down to reduce the glare and the heat. Yet the office lights stay on all day, every day. Recently, on a quiet day in the office with the sun flooding in and almost everyone else out, I thought I might take the radical step of turning the lights off. I couldn’t even find a switch.

Every office I see these days has scores of computers, screens, printers, scanners, photocopiers, coffee machines, shredders and so on which remain powered on for the 120 hours a week they are not in use, as well as the 50 hours that they might be used. None has any instruction from the employer as to turning off when not in use. Indeed, at one office I worked in recently, I was specifically instructed not to turn the PC power off, so that central IT could if it needed install software upgrades over the network overnight.

Where I have been working recently, we use laptops which plug into a docking station at the desk. There is no way to turn off the docking station except by crawling under the desk to find the plug, so this runs permanently on standby. Do companies consider these factors when deciding which manufacturer’s laptops to acquire? Of course not, it doesn’t even register.

And what about heating (and air conditioning)? I doubt if many offices are insulated to the degree that my home is. Consider also if you will the retail park warehouse - a vast open space, expensive to heat (but heat it they must, or the Shops, Offices and Railway Premises Act will enable the staff to walk out), and often an uninsulated metal shell of a building.

Of course, in summer, if it is hot in my house I open the windows. In an office, the heat builds up thanks to the sunshine - the Greenhouse effect again - even with blinds pulled down, so more power is fed into the air conditioning, which as always results in too hot and too cold spots in different parts of the building. In an office, you can never open a window.

Local authorities are not much better. Do we really need comprehensively lit back streets at 3am? Do we need traffic lights at pedestrian crossings throughout the night?

Things are no better when it comes to transport. My own car I try to use more sparingly, and attempt to drive in a way to reduce fuel consumption. Yet I see no real attempt by industry to reduce fuel consumption or journeys, unless they perceive a competitive advantage, or publicity in some kind of ‘green gesture’. I am now more aware of the impact of taking flights to go on holiday, and so probably fly less than I did. But business trips continue as they always did – the only constraint I ever hear of is in terms of the costs.

I try to travel for work more by public transport than by car these days. But the government has made it much harder here than in other countries I have worked: here, public transport is painfully expensive, there is no co-ordination between companies, and local bus services are frankly useless – infrequent, expensive, unreliable, and poor route coverage. Can it be right for the environment that use of a car is not only much more convenient, but also much cheaper than public transport?

Recently I have been using the trains from Paddington, mostly the commuter trains rather than the intercity, but it is noticeable that both are diesel driven, not electric. When I observe the massive amounts of exhaust these trains produce, I realise that these too use a lot of energy. But more concerning for those who live alongside the railway must be the diesel smoke they produce: some of these trains, especially when starting away from a station, produce prodigious amounts of smoke. If these were road vehicles, I doubt whether they would pass an MOT. Furthermore, why is it that a train typically waits in Paddington for at least 15 minutes, and sometimes for much longer, but still the engines are kept running the whole time? Is it so hard to start them up again?

It is time that Government started to give a real lead. There are many ways they could really kick off energy consciousness, but the lack of action smacks of business demands being more important than the environment.

They could set real thermal insulation building standards for new commercial premises as well as homes to be more ‘carbon neutral’, instead of weak guidelines. They could encourage micro-generation with incentives for solar panels and turbines for both commercial and domestic buildings, as they have started to in Germany and elsewhere. And they could make a real attempt to discourage fuel use by the road and air sectors of industry. But action in these areas is likely to be incremental and cautious.

The Government also argues that our country cannot take steps in isolation which reduce our international competitiveness – but isn’t that exactly the kind of selfless restraint they are encouraging us to take as individual citizens?

However, companies can themselves start to take action. Let's see businesses develop energy policies and provide guidelines to staff to minimise the rampant energy waste that goes on in every business in the land today.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Decline and Fall

There is a natural cycle of dominance on this planet. The great geological ages have come and gone, the climate moves from ice age to global warming, the dinosaurs gave way to the mammals and ultimately to humankind.

Much the same happens to human activities. Within the last 100 years we have seen the position of dominant superpower pass from the Britain of Victoria to the United States, and now perhaps we are seeing that starting to move to China.

And so it is with ICT platforms and corporations. When I was a trainee programmer in the 1970s, one company dominated computing: IBM. At its heyday, almost 7 of every 10 mainframe computers sold were IBM's. Its competitors - the likes of Univac, Burroughs, Honeywell, Britain's ICL all failed to match 'Big Blue'. So what went wrong?

Well, the invention of the microprocessor. Still IBM could have kept its position: it had the first real 'Personal Computer' - indeed, IBM is responsible for the current widespread use of the term 'PC'. However, in a misjudgement of earth-shattering proportions, it allowed the IPR of the first PC operating system, DOS, to remain with the small subcontractor producing it - Microsoft. The rest, as they say, is history. Software, not hardware, was where the money was moving. IBM is by no means a small company now, but it is no longer such a market dominating force, and is now better known for services and business software than for hardware.

Which takes us to Microsoft. Its software is everywhere: most modern PCs run its Windows operating system, and so do a large proportion of the computer servers which run the significant business systems and networks that drive commerce. We all know Outlook, Word, Excel and so on. The de facto standard document types are .doc, .xls, .ppt - indeed, the very existence of such ways of describing file types is because of Windows.

But the first signs of decline are already detectable. Microsoft is dependent on us all buying licences for its software - and with a saturated market, that means we must buy new versions of old programmes, hence the huge publicity for the launch of Windows 7. But there are two trends, each still a trickle rather than a flood, but swelling in volume: software that is free for personal use, and the Cloud.

Free software is often open source, usually collaboratively developed; in the case of business use, it earns money for its developers through implementation and support services. The Cloud refers to software that is hosted on some remote server somewhere - where exactly the user does not need to know, any more than where a web site is hosted - and is accessed over the internet. This is typically charged as a simple fee per user per annum.

Many see the Cloud as the future for, at least, general office applications such as email, messaging, document sharing and intranets, and here one company is surging to the fore: Google, with its Google Apps offering.

The concept is appealing: many companies struggle to maintain their Microsoft Exchange servers, with volume constraints on mailboxes, down time for maintenance, constant upgrades and patches, and the overhead of resources to look after all this. Google Apps offers a service where almost all the business needs to do is configure its user accounts, and use the service. These applications still look a bit immature in places, but make up for that by taking a fresh approach to the user interface, and in speed of use (depending of course on the web connection).

It won't suit everyone, and there are still issues which some companies are nervous about, such as data security (not that Microsoft is exactly a byword for unhackable software), but nevertheless the ease of use, minimal staff overheads, and most of all costs currently often estimated at well under half those of an Exchange model, are creating a fast growing community.

Now Google is not exactly a small company already, and with Google Apps looking like one vision of the future, it would not surprise me to find that in ten years' time, Google will have become the dominant computer company of its age.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Can contract recruitment agencies raise their game?

The relationship between contractors, such as Interim Managers, and the agencies who undertake to find candidates for interim roles for their clients is frequently a fraught one. The agency is paid by the client and has the dominant position in the commercial relationship with the interim - therefore their focus tends to be firmly on the client. The interim is their means of earning commission, but all too often is not treated as a supplier or partner, but as a necessary evil.

Now I have found in the course of my trawling for the next opportunity that there is a huge variation in the way that the potential contractor is treated, not only between agencies but also by individual agents within organisations. There are many who act responsibly and ethically towards their candidates, but regrettably there are more - and a growing percentage - who treat candidates poorly.

It is interesting that a recent discussion thread on LinkedIn's 'Interim Management Jobs.net' group, expressing concern about the status of the sector and the agencies' roles in it, attracted a torrent of comment from similarly dissatisfied interims - 83 comments at last count, and some other threads spawned (see it here).
The general unanimity of discontent of these comments must signal a warning to the interim provider industry. Notable recurrent themes include:

Candidates are not kept informed
It seems to have become the norm for many agencies that the candidate is only informed of positive news - requests for more details of the candidate, requests for interview, and of course any job offers. If the candidate has been turned down, or not short-listed, then he or she will only find out by contacting the agency for information - if of course they can get hold of a responsible adult. If there is no news, then there is scarcely a single agency I have worked with recently who will contact me to tell me that - and more to the point, to advise what actions they are taking and what they consider the implications of no progress to be. The rule seems to be: if you are on the client's radar, the agency is all over you; as soon as there is a drop in interest by the client, you are dropped faster than a toddler's ice cream cornet.

Opportunities are misrepresented
It seems that virtually all interim managers - myself included - have experienced agencies who engage in dubious practices, such as advertising jobs that don't exist, and initiating candidate searches for positions which the client has not yet confirmed and does not have signed off. I no longer bother applying for jobs advertised online, as they not only don't go anywhere, but all too often it is not even possible to follow up with the advertiser.

Price erosion is rife
The recession has significantly affected the opportunities for interims, not only due to the reduction in number of roles available, but also due to the number of "permies" who have been made redundant, and who are clutching at interim opportunities as a way of getting back onto the treadmill. These individuals may be very competent in their fields, but there is more to interim management than simply a willingness to work to a limited term contract. This has had the natural market effect of supply and demand, but many IMs clearly believe this has been exacerbated by the agencies. One comment suggested that the agencies are deliberately driving down prices "to appease clients and screw the interim".
There also seems to be an increasing trend for opportunities at "pro rata permanent salaries", which is a nice way for the employer to obtain temporary staff without any overhead costs (National Insurance, tax, holidays, pension and so on), which the contractor must then fund out of their fees, as well as funding the gap between contracts, meeting limited company costs and the necessary accountant's fees, and so on. I was approached recently by an agency for a short term senior project management role, demanding significant experience, at a day rate well below what I'd expect net of tax as a salary.
When rates get squeezed like this, it fuels what appears to be a considerable suspicion amongst IMs that the agencies are not bearing their share of the pain, or are failing to challenge their clients as to the wisdom of prices being demanded.

Now I believe that these kinds of treatment by agencies are very short sighted on their behalf - when I undertake a contract as an interim manager, I am frequently in the position of having to recruit other interim (and sometimes permanent) staff to resource the programme I am working on. Like other interims (and permies, for that matter) I will favour those agencies I consider have treated me responsibly and fairly. Those who have been cavalier, I now avoid giving further business to. I know that other interims, like I now do, maintain a list of both individuals and agencies who they trust or abhor, and act accordingly. Indeed, there are now 'consumer rating' websites to share experiences and score agencies.

So as the recession comes to an end, and a market recovery staggers onward and upward, there seems to me to be a clear warning message for recruitment agents: your attitudes and performances are being noted, and you will reap what you sow.